02 Apr Nobody knows you’re a dog when you know how to hide it
Sometimes journalists have to dig deep into nasty stuff and go to a territory (real or online) where someone doesn’t want them to be. Agencies, criminals and officials try to track their moves and that’s when encrypted emails, hard drives, airgap laptops and that sort need to be taken into account. But the majority of web users are tracked down for something much more common: money, attention and time.
Taking care of your anonymity and privacy is actually quite easy. The tricky part is to know what applications and extensions you can trust and use. That’s why I’ll introduce some basic applications. They are useful to anyone who is interested in taking control over what they share, with whom and how that information is used.
I use the following applications on Google Chrome and all of them have been introduced to me by a source I trust. Majority of them are also open source which makes it possible to check how the application is actually built.
Note by that open source in itself doesn’t mean that the application is trustworthy. It only means that anyone with an understanding of the code has a possibility to go through it and check if the application gives information to a third party or not. Usually open source applications don’t do it. That is also the reason to why an application is open source as the developers have nothing to hide.
Here’s a list of seven, easy to download and use, free applications and extensions to improve your privacy.
ABP Adblock Plus (open source, PC and Android *)
Adblock Plus is an ad blocking and content-filtering extension that works with Firefox, Chrome, IE, Opera, Safari and Android. While it doesn’t block all ads because of it’s list of acceptable, non-intrusive ads, I’ve found ABP to work well as it blocks most ads like the ones on YouTube and news sites.
My reason for using adblock is simply that I don’t want to see ads or be influenced by them. It also enables listening music from YouTube without interruptions. Earlier on it used to block even Spotify Web Player’s ads but now those days are gone.
Whether it is “good” or “bad” to use advertising blocking applications is up for some discussion. Many websites and newspapers use online advertising as a way to fund their work and some argue that the use of ad blocking software cuts off the revenue stream. Meanwhile some media outlets, such as Forbes, and other websites have started to detect if you use adblock, and won’t show you the website unless you add them to ABP’s whitelist.
Privacy Badger (only PC)
Privacy Badger also blocks ads but not as efficiently as ABP since it only blocks ads with embedded trackers. And that is exactly what Privacy Badger is good for: it tracks and blocks cookies that do not respect the Do Not Track -setting in a user’s web browser. According to their own words “if an advertiser seems to be tracking you across multiple websites without your permission, Privacy Badger automatically blocks that advertiser from loading any more content in your browser”.
When Privacy Badger is on, you can see what trackers follow you on which websites. You can also change the settings for each tracker.
The deal with the cookies is a little complicated ’cause sometimes they are really useful and sometimes not. What the cookies are good for is for example that they remember the stuff you added in an online shopping cart even though you didn’t log in. What they are not good for is that some cookies are able to send your browsing information and even your location back to the original owner of the cookie.
Privacy Badger is created by Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an international non-profit digital rights group.
HTTPS Everywhere (open source, only PC)
While HTTPS is often used on online banking and webshop pages, it can be used elsewhere as well. Created by EFF and the creators of Tor network, HTTPS Everywhere automatically makes websites use the more secure HTTPS connection instead of HTTP if the website supports HTTPS connections.
In HTTPS the s stands for secure, meaning that the connection between you and the website is encrypted. This gives you better protection against someone who is trying to get their hands on any information you don’t want to share with an outsider.
VPN (PC and Android)
I use the VPN of F-Secure, a Finnish cyber security and privacy company. I paid for mine but there are also free VPN’s applications such as Hotspot Shield and SwitchyOmega (open source). Take into notion that many free VPNs have a lot of pop ups.
A VPN is useful when you want to access something that your country’s IP address blocks or when you want your network access to appear to be somewhere else from where you actually are, this being especially useful when working abroad or using a public wi-fi of which you are not sure who it belongs to.
Signal (open source, PC and Android)
Signal is an end-to-end encrypted communications application for secure communication between other Signal users. What makes Signal different from WhatsApp is that in Signal the users themselves can verify the identity of the person they are messaging to.
Signal works well if you are concerned about anyone listening or reading in on your conversations. Signal is a mobile app but it can be used also over a Chrome extension.
DuckDuckGo (partly open source, PC and Android)
I use a lot of search engines and this one is something I have fallen in love with. Why? Because DuckDuckGo does not profile its users. Instead DuckDuckGo shows all users the same search results for a given search term and avoids creating filter bubbles of personalized search results.
Even though using encrypted Google search also gives you a good and unfiltered search result, DuckDuckGo’s results are based on quality over quantity. For example it generates its results from key crowdsourced sites such as Wikipedia and from partnerships with other search engines like Yahoo!, Bing and Yummly.
Some of DuckDuckGo’s source code is free but the core is proprietary.
Tor (PC and Android)
Tor enables browsing the internet anonymously as it directs internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer network. It conceals a user’s locations and makes tracking of internet activity difficult. It also makes it difficult to connect the internet activity to the user.
Note that Tor is not foolproof as it is not designed to completely erase tracks but to reduce the likelihood for sites to trace actions and data back to the user. This is why some criminals conducting illegal activities carried over Tor have been caught.
Even though Tor basically does all the same things as ABP, Privacy Badger, HTTPS Everywhere and VPN together, I do recommend you to use it only when needed. This is simply because the connection through Tor can be painfully slow and you really don’t need this level of protection when reading your morning news.
Out of these seven applications, I use all but Tor every day. Maybe I wouldn’t need to protect everything all the time, but here’s the thing: I want to do that so that when protection and privacy is actually needed I know that the applications work and that I’m familiar with how they work.
The only person who can tell you whether and when you should use these applications is you, but as a rule thumb remember this: if you would need to delete it from your browser history before lending your laptop or smartphone to a friend, use these applications. If you don’t want to show some things about yourself to your friend, why would you want to give it to a stranger?
* Disclaimer: Many of these applications surely work on an iPhone as well but since I don’t have one I wasn’t able to verify which of them are available and working.